What Women Want (From their office spaces)

What Women Want (From their office spaces)

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

The world is beginning to cautiously emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, with vaccines increasingly available and stay-at-home orders slowly lifting. Millions of people around the world began to work from home due to the COVID-19 crisis, and now some of them might be looking at going back to the office in the not-so-distant future. How are people reacting to this? What will the office look like after the COVID-19 crisis? Professor Ingrid Nappi, chaired professor of the Workplace Management Chair, has studied the future of offices and what the post-COVID-19 office could look like. In her latest research, she studied how employee preferences differ by gender and by age.

Who participated?

The Workplace Management Chair has conducted three studies to date focusing on the future of the office after the confinement, as the lockdowns and closures are referred to in France. In these, Ingrid Nappi surveys French office workers on what their workspaces looked like before and during the lockdown, and what their expectations are for the present and future. In the third version, she delved into the data to see if men and women responded differently, finding that men generally had a more positive experience. 

In the third and latest iteration of “Le bureau post-confinement” (the office after the lockdown), over 1800 people participated in the survey between April 21st and April 30th, 2021. Of these, 58% were women, with an average age of 39 years old. Respondents were from Paris (25%), greater Paris (32%) and elsewhere in France (43%). There were more men in managerial or director positions than women, with women more often in team member roles. 

Before the first confinement in March 2020, most participants worked in a space with an assigned workplace (90%), with  a smaller number in a flex office (6%)  and 4% in another arrangement (coworking, remote work). More women had previously been in the habit of remote work (54% of women vs. 45% of men). With the forced pivot to remote work in March 2020, 55% of men in an employee position reported a positive experience, compared to 44% of women in similar roles. Notably, men had a more positive experience - perhaps linked to the increased mental load women tend to experience, with household duties and childcare. 

While employers have previously been wary about productivity in remote work, the results suggest that those fears are without basis: 44 % of the respondents felt like they were more productive working from home.

Is the future of the office gendered?

This period of forced remote work has caused many people and employers to reflect on the future of offices and workspaces. Some have sounded the death knell for office spaces, while others are keen to get back to it. Dr. Nappi examined people’s expectations of the office in the present time and for the future as well. She found that the COVID-19 crisis has indeed shaped people’s expectations, with particular emphasis on being able to safely distance from colleagues and the adaptation of collective spaces to respect hygiene and safety regulations. 

Dr. Nappi also identified gender differences in what people are looking for from the office. Women prefer remote work to a greater extent than men, while more men noted their preference for flex office. Additionally, women wish to spend more of their work week working from home than do men, who reported a preference at another, non-office location (such as coworking spaces). 

Did this impact how men and women see their office space? Yes: more men tended to see the office’s main function as a space for creativity, whereas women tended to see the office as a spot to facilitate social interaction and participation in organizational life. And what about going back to the office? There were significant differences here too: men were more likely to report that they wanted to go back to their prior office spaces. 

Does your professional status matter?

Dr. Nappi and her research team went even further and explored if a women’s hierarchical position influenced her responses, comparing women in leadership roles (34%) to those in team member roles (65%). Before the lockdown, women in leadership roles worked remotely to a greater extent than those in teamwork roles. Women in leadership roles also felt like they were more effective during the confinement and were better able to organize their work, compared to women in non-managerial roles. While there was no real difference concerning their desire to head back to the office, female leaders reported a preference for individual offices or flex offices, while female employees reported a preference for closed, shared offices and remote work. Female managers were also more likely to prefer continuing to work remotely. This may be due to the fact that those in more senior positions may have work tasks that are better suited to remote work, and also that they may have the means to afford more space and a dedicated workspace compared to more junior employees. 

Generation office

The findings also varied by age group. The older generations (Gen X and the baby boomers) reported the most positive experience working remotely during the lockdown, while millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z had a more difficult time. The youngest generation, Gen Z, also reported having the hardest time organizing their work during the crisis, with 32% reporting having had trouble, compared to only 8% of baby boomers.

What’s more, the Gen Z employees noted more of a preference for returning to the office in person and spending more of their work time at the office compared to their older counterparts. This may be surprising considering we view Gen Z as digital natives who, at first glance, seem perfectly suited for remote work: but participants reported wanting to build their professional network and develop their skills, which is challenging at a distance. Additionally, younger workers may be working in smaller spaces or in family homes without a dedicated workspace, another barrier to productivity.  

What does this mean for the future of the office? 

Not so fast to those who are saying that COVID-19 has heralded the end of the office - but nor is everyone keen to get back. Male and female employees reported different preferences for their work space after the crisis, with women preferring to continue remote work and seeing offices as a space for fostering social connections, whereas men see it as a creativity source. There are also differences between different generations and even professional categories, with younger workers and those in non-managerial roles more keen to resume in-person work and do more work in person. These varying needs and professional goals tell us that there is no one ideal office and no one-size-fits-all option. On the other hand, everyone agrees on the office’s social benefits: the conviviality and shared experiences that we find there.

This suggests that employers should take into account the differing needs and varying demographics of their employees when planning next steps of the return to the office. Employers could consider offering different options for employees, such as a hybrid model, different office space options, and flexible work hours. The office isn’t dead- but it does need to be reinvented. 

To learn more about this study and others conducted by the Workplace Management Chair, check out their website.

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